It’s the Nuclear Bombs, Stupid

Gaddis’s account for the American institutions that aided in preventing direct military conflict, thus resulting in “a time of peace,” is a paradoxical account limited by an ethnocentric worldview. Gaddis writes that institutions like economic cooperation, cultural exchange, international organizations, and geography of bi-polar alliances may have contributed to a reduction of direct engagement between world powers (Gaddis 106–117). Gaddis speaks about how bi-polar alliances, cut with regional geography, play an essential part in peace. When it comes to bi-polar alliances, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China were adversaries post-Stalin death and engaged in a direct military confrontation with each other (Yeisley 76). Regarding geography, the mobilization of troops across oceans has always been difficult for civilizations. Still, even that is contradicted by the war with Japan during WWII and the development of surrogates who fought for principal nations during the Cold War (Gaddis 112). Even structural Bi-Polar alliances are not a recipe for peace because the previous bout of peace occurred when England became the sole unilateral power of all Europe after the Napoleonic Wars in the 18th Century (Evans 2010). When it comes to cultural exchange, the concept that Americans and Soviets became sympathetic towards each other doesn’t explain the “Red Fear’’ or Kennan’s ‘long telegram’ which labels the Soviet system uncompromisable and must be met with hard power and coercion (Kennan 1946).

The reality is that no American institution played a part in the avoidance of war, but the technology developed post-WWII aided in avoiding nuclear war. Gaddis is most convincing in his recognition that nuclear weapons changed how statesmen thought about war and how it impacted restraint (Gaddis 122). There are historical examples of the Israel Arab War, Sino-Soviet War, and Cuban Missile Crisis, ending in a settlement after the threat of nuclear war. It was not just the institutions that played a part in the “longest bout of peace,” but nuclear weapons.

Tools of War — Peace Through Strength

A. Nuclear Power
On August 06, 1945, the United States levelled five square miles and killed 80,000 people instantly. Thousands later died from the remnants of radiation. Never in history has one single weapon, launched by such few people, killed and salted the Earth-like “Little Boy” did. When the Japanese failed to settle, the United States killed 40,000 people instantly with “Fat Man” ( Editors 2017). Previous significant casualties, such as the Battle of Somme in WWI, took five months to enact and killed 19,240 British troops and resulted in deaths from both sides (Jones 2018).

Nuclear weapons were first limited to a small strike range and required air force assets to deliver ordinance. America detonated nuclear weapons over Japan using the B-29 bomber (Atomic Heritage Foundation 2016). When nuclear warheads were infused with ballistic missile technology and launched from nuclear silos, a range was developed to reach targets 620 miles away (Davenport 2017). After the USSR and NATO developed satellite technology, they successfully launched a new form of ballistic missiles in 1959, increasing that range to approximately 5, 500 miles (National Park Service). The gravitas of global disbalance that occurred with the shocking power of nuclear bombs cannot be underestimated. Political elites from both the Warsaw pact and NATO acknowledged that nuclear war, if enacted, would not only end a war but the “the destruction of world civilization” (Gaddis 127). The resulting increases in technology changed both nations’ wartime strategies and thus contributed to Gaddis’s definition of the “great bout of peace” during the Cold War. These changes are the use of proxies and nuclear negotiations.

B. Proxies
During the era known as the Cold War, nations sought to continue to play a significant power in directing conflict through surrogates. The hiring of surrogates or mercenaries is not a new phenomenon. All world powers have been hiring surrogates to interfere with their adversaries since the beginning of civilization (Andrews 2014). The change that occurred during the Cold War era was an advancement in global transport and communications. This extended international powers to directly communicate with various organizations to foster surrogate militias, bypassing the constraints of geographic location. These surrogates were the “Cheapest insurance in the world” against adversaries as they were designated by both NATO and Warsaw powers to avoid the responsibility of direct intervention (Rosenau and Gold 1).

Limited War Examples — Peace Through Nukes

A. Sino-Soviet Border Conflict Resolved by Nuclear Threats
While Gaddis describes the Cold War as a time of peace and defines peace as relations between two countries. The reality is that the Communist Party of China began ramping up military confrontation post-Stalin’s death and Mao wanted Moscow to learn a “bitter lesson” (Gerson et al. 2010). Chinese strategy was a limited incursion on the border of the Soviet Union to settle an island dispute, but the Soviets interpreted this action as an unacceptable antagonism between the communist factions (Gerson et al. 2010). There is little record of how many people died or the level of force used during the Sino-Soviet border war (Gerson et al. 2010). During the Sino-Soviet War, the Soviets began asking the international community what their thoughts on the Soviets use of nuclear weapons to settle the dispute. In 1969, China became so concerned with a surprise nuclear attack that the Chinese leadership fled the capital and believed that the Russians were legitimate in their nuclear war threat to settle the border crisis (Gerson et al. 2010). The Chinese and Soviet parties began and completed negotiations favouring the Soviet Union.

B. Cuban Missile Crisis
In 1961, The United States authorized the recruitment of 1,400 Cuban exiles living in Miami to form a militia to attack the Castro regime. John F. Kennedy believed that Castro’s removal would demonstrate to the Soviet Union and PRC that America had supremacy within its influence areas. His predecessor, Eisenhower, was careful to demonstrate the support of the United States for this campaign and feared that the Soviets might view the militia’s attack as Causi Belli. Americans dressed up B-26 bombers, painting them to appear Cuban and moved the militia to attack. The militia was outmaneuvered and surrendered after 114 members were killed. While America’s defence elites wanted to escalate to U.S troops’ direct involvement after the Bay of Pigs’ failure, Kennedy, like Eisenhower, feared escalating the fight and triggering a conventional war with the Soviets ( Editors 2009). Due to the innovation of surveillance technology, the United States U-2 spy plane were able to photograph ballistic missile assembly in Cuba supported by the Soviets (Schaffer 2020).

Parallel to the Bay of Pigs in 1959, Turkey signed an agreement with the United States that allowed the US to retain ownership and authority of the Jupiter missiles. This provided NATO forces with nuclear retaliation against the Soviet bloc as part of their containment strategy. The United States and the Soviets now both had nuclear weapons threatening their mutual security. The resolution of both countries was to remove their nuclear arsenals from their client states and develop a “Hot Line” communication between Washington and Moscow to aid in the cooling of future situations (Schaffer 2020).

C. Arab Yom Kipper War
During the Cold War, NATO and Warsaw Pact funded the development of a principal-client relationship with Israel and Egypt. Arab Yom Kipper War was a conflict in which Israeli’s were losing a war with Egypt and threated to engage in nuclear retaliation. The Soviets responded by assuring Israel that if they did so, Soviets would unleash nuclear weapons directed at Israel (Roblin 2020). America did not seek to end the war but prevent nuclear war from starting. The USA provided a vast fleet of 72 jets, 200 tanks, heavy artillery, and missiles to prevent Israel from escalating the conflict. Fear of nuclear war drove Washington to offer more support to its client state, and with that support, the war turned into a stalemate, and then to a settlement (Roblin 2020).


This time was anything but peaceful. The Soviet Union and the United States had “great power stability” due to the threat of nuclear weapons and their resulting parallel innovations which contributed to the prevention of nuclear war from occurring. Gaddis most convincing argument is the reality of nuclear war as a deterrent for great power conflict. Under a Clausewitzian definitions of war, war is used as a bargaining chip for political discourse (Stoker 2016). War is thus elites determining that the cost for war is lesser than the political gains. War is not enacted purely by economic, social, or accidental actions (Gaddis 120). The great peace between powers during the Cold War was a lack of gain for both parties if they engaged in a direct war. Direct War between great powers had never been this costly. This allowed both principals to allocate material support for their engagements without transforming the conflict into a direct war with each other.

Work Cited

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MA. candidate for Arizona State University Centre for Future Warfare.